'Lander lineman making valiant return to field

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com
Friday, Aug. 23, 2002 is a day many Cloudland football fans and Highlander lineman Jeff Lunsford are not likely to forget.
Lunsford was primed for a special senior season in 2002, after being listed as an all-county and all-conference football player in 2001.
Gearing up for the season opener later that night against Hampton, Lunsford and two other young men were traveling back towards Roan Mountain when they were involved in a serious automobile accident.
Jeff was critically injured in the wreck, which could've taken his life and ended his high school playing career.
"When I first heard of it, I knew it was a bad wreck, and honestly, I thought he was dead -- and that scared the daylights out of me," said Jeff's uncle and Cloudland head coach Mike Lunsford. "It just worried me. My first concern was for his health, of course, and my second concern after I found out he was all right was his schooling and athletics."
"There was a lot of people there for me," Jeff said of the wreck. "Coach Lunsford and all of the coaches, Dan Winters, my parents and all the school's support of me was unreal."
Lunsford seriously hurt a foot among other things, putting his senior season out of the question. However, another school in the state had a player in the same situation the previous season, which was allowed to come back courtesy of a TSSAA rule.
"I talked to a coach from Midway, and he told me there was a rule that said 'if a kid missed a semester of school due to an accident that was out of his power that he could get an extra semester of eligibility,'" added the coach.
Coach Lunsford sent the paperwork into the TSSAA, which was initially approved, provided Jeff complete six credits.
Only being allowed to take four credits in the spring semester at Cloudland, Jeff took an after-school art class and a summer school course, granting him the chance to play football one more time.
But once things started to get better for Lunsford, he had to have emergency surgery.
Added Mike: "(Jeff) came in and did a lot of work this summer to get to play, and then a month before practice starts he has appendicitis and had to have an appendectomy emergency surgery."
"I was afraid that would slow him down and knock him out of some stuff but it didn't. He hung in there, got a lot better and you can't really tell he's had any physical problems in the way he's playing."
Lunsford battled in the weight room and continue to work towards his goal of being one of the best linemen in 1-A, with a dream of playing college ball in the future.
"I just wanted to get back out here and enjoy my last year of football," he said. "It's been great and I've loved every moment of it. But I want to try to make it to play in college, hopefully. I'll give it 110 percent all year."
Jeff was able to begin practice and scrimmage against Johnson County last Friday.
"In the scrimmage the other day, he was really excited, fired up and happy to be out there," Coach Lunsford said. "I guess you don't realize how much you miss something until you don't have it, then you get an opportunity to try it again and you're fortunate enough to get a second chance in his case."
"It's good to see him have fun on the field," he said. "Of course it's good to see all of them having fun, but at one point you resign to the fact that his playing days were over and you didn't know if he was going to make it or not."
Jeff will get his senior season at Cloudland, and knows that the work is in store for the whole team to yet again reach their dream of a state title.
"We have to get in shape and go both ways all the time," added Jeff. "If we keep working hard, we'll be good and I think we'll have a good shot to go back to state this year."
Even if this Highlander team does not make it back to Murfreesboro, the small community will be proud of Jeff Lunsford and his battle against all the odds.
Said Mike Lunsford: "I'm glad to see him survive it, make it, and put the effort forth practicing hard every day and giving the effort it takes to be a great player."
Lunsford and the Highlanders will get their first test of the season Aug. 22 at home against Hampton.